Learning vs. Education in the Anthropocene

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Human beings are biological learning machines.

This is an idea I return to, continually, probably because it has deep roots in truth. Our brains are extremely well adapted for learning. (I note that I am saying “our” as if both the persona writing now and any potential readers of the resulting text are all, of necessity, part of Homo sapiens.) There is a kind of embodied and experiential confirmation of the notion that human brains are focused on learning, are excited about learning in different ways, have a high level of potential for learning and are very effective at it. Learning is a quasi-natural, quasi-effortless activity for humans. Humans are “natural born learners.”

Alongside other characteristics of human cognition, like counterfactual thinking or counter-reality thinking (which comprises lying, creativity, reflecting on the past and anticipating the future, fantasizing, posing “what if” questions, conjuring robust alternatives to manifest reality, theorizing, thinking abstractly, writing literary narratives, etc.), learning is probably what the human brain does best. We notice patterns, analyze them, hypothesize about what they mean, then we recall both the the pattern-sensing activity and the information that we draw out of it. That reiterated activity — thinking, coming to new understandings, inscribing them as retrievable memories, retrieving them readily — and the ways in which those cognitive events change our perceptions and behaviors for the future are the phenomena that comprise “learning.” It’s what humans do, even without guidance or teaching. It’s built in. It’s evolutionary.

The capacity to learn, a set of neuro-chemical and microscopically anatomical processes (new patterns of brain activity and neural connection), must be distinguished from “education,” which is a cultural construct. Learning is largely innate. Education is artificial and imposed.

Granted, there are significant areas of overlap. Learning can be social and collaborative. One could even consider learning to be capable of developing organically and naturally into a systematized process that looks like education. Quite frankly, education, for all of its complex, social, constructed nature, cannot be divorced from learning as a process. Still, one can distinguish between innate, fundamental or naïve learning, which is enabled primarily by evolutionarily shaped brain functions (supported by the most fundamental level of social order, like family or clan), and educated learning or formal education, which is complex, highly structured, with many rules and criteria. Education is institutional. It is about social values, social order, facilitation of social functions and the efficient or effective pursuit of socially significant actions, decisions, communications, collaborations and other kinds of communal effort. Education is about society. It is not about the learner.

I recognize that there is value in education. Indeed, one can hardly imagine modern society without it. That necessity, though, does not mean that education is consistently good or that it is moral. One can admire the efficacy of education in Victorian England, for example, which seems to have offered benefits to many (primarily men), across social classes. Viewed from a certain perspective, it seems like it was a nearly optimal result. However, we must also note that the real benefit was for the Empire, which developed a ready supply of colonial administrators and bureaucrats who had all been certified through education as being literate and numerate, who, furthermore, typically embraced and re-propagated imperial values and prejudices.

Granted, one can make critical thinking and the questioning of authority a part of the educational system, as a means for avoiding the abuses or errors of Victorian England, for example. Indeed, one can produce literate, thoughtful graduates who will refuse to fall in line as imperial bureaucrats or doing what they are told unquestioningly. However, it is rarely done. Indeed, its is nearly impossible to strip education of the ideological underpinnings that promote and support a society’s orientation, prejudices, and strongly held views.

Education necessarily reproduces the blinders, the cultural prejudices, and the ideological lenses of the society that mandated it. That inevitable phenomenon is a significant part of why so few in the U.S., for example, can take a step back from the economic system to observe and evaluate in a truly critical manner what might be described as the dishonest, inequitable, corrupting, environmentally destructive, and dehumanizing aspects of market capitalism. (NB: Being clairvoyant about the dysfunctions of capitalism is not incompatible with believing in some of its values, which I do.) What is more, it is nearly impossible in highly digitized societies to insulate oneself from digital technologies and media, which, in this case, have a firm hold on American citizens’ mental models, preferences, predominant metaphors, and prejudices.

To make these observations personal, indeed, self-critical, I note that the ideas that initially motivated this blog (specifically, credentialing and the educational certification of skills valued by potential employers) are problematic. Those ostensibly innovative approaches to higher education are about employment and little else. They are all about producing qualified workers, not about fostering engaged citizenship. In a word, much of the original impetus for this blog proceeded with little concern for environmental stewardship or ethical decision-making. It aligned more with the goal of manufacturing compliant, competent, productive workers of a sort that employers desire and will pay good money for — so that more product can be generated and more sales made, which also entails more resources being cosumed, more air and water polluted, more carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.

At this point, I’d like to take a deep breath. It’s not just that I am feeling sour about education. It’s that, whatever social good our educational systems have produced, they have also reinforced a certain “productivist,” capitalistic, consumerist mentality that virtually guarantees that our species (along with nearly all other parts of the web of life) will plunge headlong into climate catastrophe long before a majority of first-world human beings begin to pay serious attention to questions like whether or not serious environmental interventions and climate-change mitigations are called for. We will fiddle while the world burns down, then realize, in a stupor, that we are fools, and that it is far too late to save our home. That is the real tragedy. Let us have the integrity and the courage to acknowledge that it is because of the hypnotic power that unquestioningly pro-capitalist, pro-technology, pro-consumerist “education” has over learners in industrialized societies.

This is part of the evolutionary paradox of Homo sapiens, where we risk leading ourselves to an evolutionary dead end (i.e. extinction). I might add that while those of us in First-World and Rapidly-Industrializing societies are committing species-wide suicide (without fully understanding what we are doing, obstinately refusing to learn from the warning signs along our path), we are taking along with us a multitude of others life forms. We are imposing drastic climate change on poorer, more vulnerable nations and peoples. We are extinguishing plant and animal species at a prodigious rate. We have greatly degraded biodiversity and destryed complex equilibria in ecosystems across the planet. We are burning down our planetary house even as we refuse to invest in fire-fighting resources and tools.

Is there not some way for us to return to a simpler, more web-of-life-connected experiential kind of learning that does not simply indoctrinate folks to be good workers, good consumers — which is to say, resource-depleting, high-carbon-footprint, profit-maximizing consumers — or complacent and compliant citizens who fail to see the vast failures of the systems in place? Freire and Illich were right. Biesta, I’m afraid to say it, is wrong. Radical change is called for, by which I mean de-schooling, stripping things down to a kind of primitive, back-to-nature, questioning, critical learning, then rebuilding for justice and sustainability. I suspect that we probably need to toss virtually all of “education” out on its ear for the good of the world.

More on quantity of engagement vs. quality of production

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This entry will be short because I do not have much time and wish, simply, to capture a few thoughts for further elaboration later. The basic idea that the previous blog post landed on arose in part from thinking about how learning proceeds in MOOCs, both xMOOCs and cMOOCs. In most cases, there is not a lot of professorial agonizing over providing granular feedback on quality, on sentence structure, on the fine characteristics of the learner’s thought or argumentation, or the lack thereof. In the case of many xMOOCs, the rubrics simply capture whether or not the work done is “good enough” in a particular way or across a set of characteristics. (Was there a clear argument? Was evidence presented? Are all sentences complete and grammatically correct? Did the response answer the prompt? And so forth.)

On the other hand, many of us, when we teach face-to-face and evaluate student work, we agonize over providing highly detailed feedback, particularly on writing tasks, and we offer abundant, detailed suggestions for improvement. Experience and anecdotal evidence suggest that much of that effort is futile. In contrast, a highly motivated learner in a cMOOC gets very little formal feedback from a “professor” and, in fact, draws most of her or his learning experience (and whatever other benefits the xMOOC offers) by paying attention during conversations with others, i.e. peer learners, by reflecting deeply and critically, by working out things for him- or herself, by trying new tools. There is a structure and a highly productive flow to a cMOOC experience. Learning definitely takes place, but it’s not via “teacher” to “learner” feedback/critique.

To be honest, I think that for someone who invests in the process, learning in a totally informal cMOOC is as robust, as meaningful and as persistent as anything that one does in a face-face class for a grade. Indeed, a lot of my own intellectual rejuvenation in the past half-decade or so has its impetus in learning via MOOCs of different sorts, along with pursuing my own readings and engaging in reflecting, whether on my own or following suggestions from others.

A reasonably scaffolded experience where the reflection and writing are “good enough” over a significant quantity and variety of tasks is probably just as productive and meaningful for the learner, perhaps more so, than a lot of granular, detailed, picky feedback and overabundant suggestions for improvement. What is the better way for an instructor to spend time? I’d say that it is more productive to spend more time on carefully organizing the learning materials & activities, scaffolding well, and providing less but more judicious feedback than in spending a lot time over each student product, detailing every error or wrong turn and providing a long list of detailed suggestions.

What Promotes Learning: Practice, Practice, Practice, Reflection (Digital Tools Can Help)

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This reflection meanders a bit before it gets to the heart of the matter. Its object is teaching practice in general, but much of the thinking that took place as my fingers worked at the keyboard was overshadowed and inflected by the notion of e-learning. The genesis of this piece lies in a note that I wrote to myself some time ago about online teaching, and that I have been trying to understand and elaborate on: “Quantity of engagement. Not necessarily quality. Just something to keep in mind.”

This semester (spring 2019), I will be teaching an online (read: e-learning) course. This is my second iteration of formal/group teaching online, and the fourth time that I have taught in a fully digitally mediated way. (I have also done two digitally mediated tutorials.) Having learned a great deal and having benefitted enormously from “e-learning” myself via MOOCs, however imperfect these vehicles might be, I am convinced of the value of e-learning, of digital technologies for communication and/or collaboration, and digital spaces for learning. Unlike many colleagues in my academic department, indeed, across the College of Arts and Sciences at my university, I believe that undergraduate students can indeed learn robustly, significantly and consequentially online. I believe quite sincerely that digital technologies can — but do not necessarily do so — permit real and consequential communication, knowledge-building, research and shared reflection, even among ostensibly immature undergraduates. I believe that digital technologies allow a greater range of possibility in learning.

Of course, and therein lies the rub, it generally depends on the seriousness, attention and self-discipline of the learner who engages in digital learning. In the case of mature and highly motivated adult learners, instructors can count on significant levels of engagement and focused intellectual performance. What is more, adult learners have more experience and more cognitive slots to accommodate new knowledge and new experiences. Those conditions contrast with, for example, general-education teaching of immature undergraduates who sometimes have difficulty focusing on tasks, or manage their time poorly, or just generally fail to do what it takes to understand, to learn, to grow intellectually.

So… it depends on the learner. It also depends on the instructor. Some professors are quite adept at facilitating digital conversations and digital collaborations. Indeed, some professors know how to use the affordances of digital environments to promote and facilitate connection, collaboration and communication for high-quality communal learning. Some professors are adept at motivating even “unmotivated” students.

Increasingly, I am of the opinion that what is important is not so much the quality of what students do as it is the quality of the instruction and the pre-organization and scaffolding of learning experiences. For the learner, what is important is the quality of their attention and motivation, not the quality of their performance. So, it is the instructor’s duty to motivate and scaffold in order to assure a certain quantity of learner engagement with well-defined, well-organized activities, reflective practices and collaborative knowledge-building. Indeed, there are ways in which what we call “quality” turns out, in fact, to be a question of quantity. (How much time, how much thought, how many reasonable arguments generated, etc.) The optimal result is to encourage all students to engage in significant amounts of practice, in a number of different helpful learning activities, and to pursue substantive amounts of sincere and engaged reflection. That’s what it takes. Practice, practice, practice — and experience and reflection. If you properly manage that combination, learning happens. I don’t quite want to say: “Quality be damned.” But I do believe that, say, in writing, an intense professorial focus on providing highly detailed feedback about the quality of writing, or offering suggestions for improving its quality, will ultimately be less useful than simply providing many opportunities to write, stoking motivations that push the learner to spend large swaths of time engaged in the processes of writing, reflecting on writing, and revising that work.

In my own teaching, I think I’m going to shift my rubrics from a focus on quality per se to focusing on the amount and intensity of certain kinds of intellectual labor that learners devote to tasks. To teach well, it’s not a matter of monitoring the quality of student products and promoting increases in quality of production. It’s about assuring that learners make a lot of effort in a variety of learning tasks, lots of efforts and products that are “good enough.” That’s more important, probably, than striving for perfection or excellence by pushing my own standards of quality.

This idea — preferring quantity of practice that is “good enough” and is varied vs. focusing on the quality of each student product or performance — is worth considering further. It is inspired largely by the way some e-learning experiences are structured and evaluated, with the effect of maximizing practice and reflection without focusing explicitly and obsessively on teacher assessment of the “quality” of student products. It think that there is real merit to this intuition.

Developing Collective and Cultural Metacognition…?

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One of the learning approaches that I think needs to be developed a bit more broadly is the human capacity for metacognition. There needs to be more critical thinking about our own thinking, not just on an individual level, but also collectively. Indeed, it is something that ought to be inculcated as a fundamental value across all cultures. One way to do this would be through teaching, learning and mentoring.

To a significant degree, human cognition, both conscious and unconscious cognition, together with the human behaviors that result from that part of human nature are deeply flawed. Or, to put it more neutrally and more precisely, our cognitive processes and our behaviors can, at times, be nonsensical, counterproductive, and destructive. They can lead us into situations that undermine our health and safety, generate unproductive interpersonal conflicts, provoke ignoble and harmful emotions or ingrain self-destructive habits of body and mind.  Generally speaking, much of what human beings do collectively works against our own individual thriving and our collective survival. There are ways in which we incarnate an evolutionary paradox.  (Click here for an interesting, compelling and somewhat flawed reflection by John Scales Avery on this state of affairs, where Homo sapiens, ostensibly the most advanced and most adaptable organism at the apex of evolutionary processes, seems bent not on survival and persistence, but on planet-wide mass murder-suicide.) Human beings are destroying biodiversity, increasing global warming, poisoning water and air, destabilizing and disrupting the planetary systems that underlie and assure our thriving and our persistence as a species. Why do we do this? Because as a species, we follow our fiercest and most alluring impulses, with little regard for the long term, with disdain for other species and for the planet, our home, out space ship, our habitat.  Our emotional instability and puerility and our biased, erratic and error-prone thinking induce us to persist in following evolutionarily undesirable pathways.

Developing a process of collective metacognition or a way to inculcate deep and self-critical reflection in all human beings, across cultures, so that we become aware of the ways in which our emotions and our mental character undermine the conditions that will help assure our long-term survival. Indeed, let’s figure a way to teach all students to use metacognitive strategies themselves to gain some critical distance on the evolutionarily programmed flaws in our thinking and emotional lives. But also, let’s  teach them to teach others. Let’s teach them to cultivate their own influence, so that they can teach metacognition to others and teach them to develop predispositions and behaviors at a proper critical distance from flawed ways of thinking and acting.

Individually and collectively, we need to be more fully aware of the ways in which the disjunctures between our biological evolution and our social evolution as gregarious, culturally-programmed, status-conscious creatures lead us astray. We need to realize the ways in which our unconscious and automatic reactions or behaviors arise from a mismatch between our biological past and our socio-cultural present. It would be helpful, as we try to construct and manage rational, deliberative, cooperative social arrangements for ourselves and as we function as integral parts of the planet’s complex of ecosystems, if we were to be deeply thoughtful and critically self-aware, if we assured that we were not sliding down slopes of compulsion, bias and disproportionate, massively destructive appetites. We need to develop individual and collective metacognition, to be aware of our our thinking and feelings may be leading us into erroneous and self-destructive choices.

How, though, does one develop and encourage this kind of growth in wisdom and self-mastery through metacognition? How does one inculcate this way of proceeding as a cultural norm? How does one scale up and propagate both the learning and the teaching of metacognitive approaches? Indeed, why haven’t we already come to a universal consensus about the desirability of not giving in to our most foolhardy evolutionary weaknesses? Why don’t we collectively value and teach self-mastery and emotional maturity? Why don’t we act like wise apes, instead of like vicious, greedy, self-serving, bloodthirsty ones who happen to possess and control nuclear weapons and vast economies that pollute, destroy habitats and mechanically drive species to extinction?

Indeed.

Seeking Wisdom in the Anthropocene?

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If one thinks of learning as it fits certain formal notions of education (learning chemistry, learning math, learning to speak French, learning to write), it seems ludicrous to talk about the “future of learning” given our current circumstances, when our planetary home is burning to the ground, so to speak. Humankind is foolishly, some might say suicidally, destabilizing planetary systems and disrupting the web of life to a catastrophic degree. Under these conditions, what good does it do to memorize verb declensions or to solve polynomial equations or earn diplomas that certify that we can do those things?

On the other hand, if we think about learning as being focused on developing a capacity to discern and address the problems of the Anthropocene, it may be worth thinking about and pursuing. If learning is about developing the capacity to collaborate, developing effective problem-solving strategies, and building consensus around sustainable and stabilizing approaches to our interactions with the world and with each other, it might be worthwhile. If “the future of learning” is about seeking to achieve a sufficient level of collective wisdom, where we face our responsibilities maturely and do what is necessary to assure the survival and thriving of not only all humans currently alive, but also other species and, indeed, the entire web of life, then it could be extremely helpful.

In this blog, I probably ought to focus “the future of learning” in the second sense, where learning increases collaboration, develops critical and complex thinking, encourages learners to seek broad-based, iterative, and practical solutions to wicked problems. I might add that the kind of learning that I believe we need in this troubled time is learning that promotes “deliberative democracy,” where citizens seriously and responsibly consider good and true information, debate potential solutions with the greater good in mind, and come to a productive consensus based on broadly shared values that include respect for truth and goodness, the survival of humanity, the protection of our collective safety, and concern for everyone’s ability to live decently. Of course, these results ought to be the true goal of any democratic process, but as we all know, alas, it is not. Democracy in post-truth America seems to be more about oneupmanship, scoring points dishonestly, making one’s enemies look like fools, serving extremist ideologies, and serving one’s own interests and/or paying off debts to lobbyists and sponsors by corruptly using the power of the state, with reckless disregard for the common good.

If I can focus on learning that not only teaches individuals how to learn for themselves, how to think critically, how to discern what is important, but also how to get others to do the same, then it will be worthwhile.

So, for the foreseeable future, that will be one of the principal goals of this blog. The future of learning IN THE ANTHROPOCENE, which includes inculcating true wisdom, tolerance, deliberative democracy in the best sense of that term… That’s what I’ll be shooting to elucidate and flesh out.

Future? Learning? in the Anthropocene? Really?

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About a year and a half ago, I started of this blog, thinking of it as being about “the future of learning,” even if that is not the formal title. I hesitated and gave it a certain amount of thought before proceeding. I was not entirely certain that I truly wanted to write a blog. Ultimately, a large part of my motivation for doing so, as I have noted repeatedly in the blog entries themselves, is that certain MOOCs required me to write blog entries or required me to keep an online journal. Additionally, I convinced myself to take this plunge because I am a proponent of so-called “writing to learn.” That is, I recognized that pursuing research then writing it up was a good way to learn material. (This was something that I knew from my own self-directed learning and that I had learned and internalized from some of my better classes.) Indeed, as a teacher and as a learner, I know that by reading and reflecting, then writing (and doing this reading, reflecting, and writing with concrete, meaningful goals in mind), I am able to advance my intellectual development and commit material more completely and more securely to long-term memory. When you have, as is said colloquially, “skin in the game,” in the sense that you must commit your thoughts to legible form, stand behind your ideas, and defend them, or when you are compelled to articulate your perceptions and reasoning for sharing them with others so that they may closely examine and critique the results of your cogitation, it highly effective for learning. Certainly, it is more effective than, for example, reading alone or simply trying to memorize material by repeating it. When you submit your ideas to critique, it is more difficult and feels a bit more risky than keeping your thoughts to yourself and refusing to submit them to scrutiny, which allows you, with little risk, to proclaim yourself a genius in your own mind.

When I started the blog, I conceived of it as being about learning, rather than education. Why? Because I did not want to focus on institutions or institutional practices. The problem, now, is that I am not certain that I can speak effectively about the future of learning. I might be able to blog effectively about the probably bleak future of higher education. I might be able to talk about trends in education and learning practices in general. But it makes little sense to talk about the future of learning. Learning is an innate process, a cognitive emergence that is a part of any and every human’s fundamental character (or more precisely, the fundamental character of any and every sentient being endowed with neuroplasticity). It’s not specific. It’s not concrete.

So… one of the problems is that the word “learning” is an inaccurate representation of what this blog is about. It might be more proper to call this blog something like “the future of learning practices.” Except, of course, that label sound bloated and foolish.

The other major problem with the formulation behind this blog is the word “future.” There are a multitude of ways in which I think it improper and misleading. First, it is dishonest for me to claim to know the future of anything at all, much less to claim to predict or foresee something as complex as learning practices in the distant future, or even in the middle or near term. Indeed, I cannot be certain what I will be doing in an hour, nor do I know with certainty how I will be doing it. It is ludicrous, then, for me to pretend to talk about the “future of learning.”

Another dimension that leads me to be skeptical of my own formulation is my concern for the future of this planet. Not just education. Not just learning technologies of classroom practices or insights from cognitive science research. The future of everything on this planet. Well, of nearly all forms of life on this planet. How does one talk about learning in the Anthropocene — or the Anthropozoic — when the course of human history makes it abundantly clear that Homo sapiens, collectively, learns very little, acts irrationally, and repeats foolish, self-destructive errors on a massive, indeed, planetary scale. If one were to judge the species as we might judge an individual, we are a greedy, selfish, heedless, thrill-seeking fool. We are a danger to ourselves and to others.

I am afraid that the time for “learning” in the sense that I have been discussing it in blog entries has now passed. It’s time for something else. When the entire village is catching fire, hurting and killing nearly everyone in in the conflagration and destroying nearly all foodstuffs, tools and other materials needed for long-term- survival, does the village teacher spend time thinking about intellectual development, critical thinking, good practices for acquiring and processing knowledge, for solving problems, for reading and writing effectively and well? Probably not.

About the only value that I can see in thinking about “effective learning” is to focus on ways to impart to younger learners the strategies and tools that they will need to survive long-term — or the tools that they will need to radically alter the course of collective human action, so that we don’t fan the flames or spray not-yet-destroyed houses with kerosene. Granted, the fire burning down the village seems like a slow-motion one. At the same time, our response is in slow motion as well, and we are doing very little to fight the fire. Indeed, many of us are stoking flames and fiddling while the village burns.

So… it is very hard for me to see how I can persist in writing this blog. (Of course, I note the irony of my questioning the validity of persisting in this practice by continuing to write in the blog.)

Where do we go from here? What do I write about? Can I continue talking cogently and meaningfully about learning? Or ought I eliminate this project and focus on more important things, like making action-focused decisions about facing the Anthropocene as one of a relatively small group of deeply concerned thinkers who also happen to be teachers? How do we learn and develop new, proper, fitting learning practices in the face of the Anthropocene or the Anthropozoic?

Matière à réflexion. I will give it some thought and perhaps comment further, later.

[Heavy sigh.]

Doubts, hesitations, and self-focused critique…

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Somewhat like the last blog, this one is personal and addresses my affective, creative and cognitive life as a teacher (and as a scholar). One of the major factors that seems to have an impact on my performance as a teacher is time management, or more precisely, planning ahead and effective managing my personal effort and investments of time to assure that tasks are done according to my plans. In a word, temporality counts, prioritizing counts, persistence on task counts. And I don’t always work consistently and persistently enough. I forget to plan ahead. Then, in order to catch up to where I ought to be, I take shortcuts, and that includes just lecturing rather than setting things up so that students do the learning activities with minimal guidance from me. So… yeah.

My student evaluations from this past semester were not bad, but they did note a number of flaws or weaknesses present in my teaching — and they are precisely the ones that I had pledged to correct in 2018. That result leads me to a feeling of incompetence and a strong sense of self-doubt. The problem, of course, is that my inadequate planning and my poor execution of time/effort/task management disallows teaching the way I think it ought to be done. That is, instead of having a full, well-scaffolded set of tasks leading over multiple lessons to a particular accomplishment or well-designed and pertinent set of new understandings or a well-integrated or complementary new skills, the lessons end up being somewhat haphazard. Students feel inspired but confused. It is not clear how everything fits together. Students can’t make sense of things on their own and I do not do a sufficient job of explaining and framing activities. Students are not certain what they have accomplished or what they have learned, even though I know that they have made good progress in many ways.

What is more, I recently allowed my frustration and irritation to get the upper hand, and I spoke to some colleagues in ways that were not fair or admirable. I did little to inspire folks with ideals and strategies of pedagogy, but instead turned them off. Again, my poor handling of my affective life (poor self-awareness leading to the eruption of excessive reactions) undermines my sense of competence and confidence. And…

On top of my feeling terrible about my teaching, I’m doing a terrible job on the scholarly front as well. I have let slip my work on a volume of essays that I’m supposed to be co-editing for publication in summer 2019. I need to get that project back on track. I also need to get back on track for the special issue of a journal that I am supposed to co-edit.

In short, I have allowed a multiplicity of tasks, obligations, demands and deadlines to influence me, to back me into a corner, to incite panic in my mind and heart. Allowing that to happen made me lose contact with the conceptual and organizational threads that I had imagined as my intellectual guides. So now I’m in a bad spot. I need to get back on track, then work in a very intentional way to plan and to manage tasks. My sanity, my reputation and my sense of self depend on it. I’ll need luck as well as clear vision and hard, persistent work.

Clearly, this is what my summer will be shaped by. A lot of my thinking in June, July and early August will be about teaching, with robust planning for the fall semester. I will pay particular attention to the formative feedback and student comments that I have received, along with my self-reflections and self-critiques. I also need to establish some strategies and mechanisms to help me be consistent and persistent in address the flaws in my teaching and lesson-planning (to do lists, a set of clear standards and reminders to guide my thinking, etc.). I need to get back on track and to manage time/tasks better. That’s my job for now.

Whoever said that teaching is “easy” and who considers that summers are “vacation” for teachers and professors probably never really lived in the skin of a conscientious teacher-scholar. It’s hard.

 

Co-Facilitating a Faculty Learning Community:

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Let me begin by saying, quite honestly, that it was an honor to be asked to co-facilitate the inaugural Faculty Learning Community at my university, which took place over the  2017-2018 academic year. Each part of the process was interesting and engaging, from preliminary conversations with the Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning at my institution during the preceding academic year, through more concrete and focused discussions over the summer of 2017, and the actual implementation of plans for our first meeting in October, to subsequent meetings through the spring 2018 semester. (Our final regularly scheduled discussion will take place in about ten days, on 18 April 2018. That will be followed by a workshop session in early May, where some FLC participants will draft revised syllabi for our targeted courses and discuss changes we have already implemented or that we intend to implement.)

Learning communities can function in a variety of different ways. In this case, my co-facilitator and I designed it as a learning community for teachers at our institution, with a focus on potentially helpful instructional strategies. We were hoping to have a mix of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members; we also hoped for a mix of experienced teachers and relatively new ones. As it turns out, only one non-tenure track teacher joined the group and none of the faculty learning community members was relatively inexperienced or new to our institution. Still, we had a good mix of disciplines and a variety of personalities that made for interesting discussions.

We settled on two books to inform and direct our readings, Make It Stick and The New Science of Learning. The former was more central to our discussions and the latter provided supplementary perspectives and information.  Each of the participants agreed to target one particular course and pledged to revise the syllabus to that course to reflect concrete, specific changes as a result of participating in the learning community (e.g. modifications in the manner of teaching, in the manner of information presentation, in particular learning activities or in the general structure of the course).  Beyond the two co-facilitators, there were eight participants, The ten of us (or a large majority of the ten of us) met once or twice per month through the spring semester.

For me there was frustration and ambivalence in the experience of facilitating discussions among the faculty members of the learning community. First, I was not sure just how much authority to assume in nudging the conversation in particular directions. I created prompts, questions and an agenda for each meeting. However, it was not always easy to keep the participants on task and focused on the proposed talking points. The conversation veered periodically into tangents that, in my view, had little to do with the subject matter of the books under discussion, the proposed agenda, or the overarching goals of this learning experience. What is more, I often had the impression that my colleagues were more eager to speak about their own teaching, than they were willing to listen to and to learn from others. In some moments, I felt a little bit like the flustered teacher at the front of a classroom who begs students to turn their minds and conversations to a particular assigned topic or to focus on a particular idea or dataset… and is immensely frustrated to see all students ignoring those directions and continue to chat about matters irrelevant to the pre-planned.

As I pause to take a step back, however, and think about how I prefer to teach, by giving up a large measure of control, allowing students significant responsibility in each class session for constructing their own meanings, gently guiding students as they develop and integrate their own “new” knowledge and forge their own connections, I realize that my frustration is a bit silly. Part of my problem is that over these past weeks I did not consistently follow the lead of my co-facilitator, who consistently accepts faculty engagement at whatever level our colleagues give it and seems to consider any progress made by any FLC member to be a good thing. My feelings of frustration point more toward a problem with my attitude as a co-leader and co-facilitator, along with my perhaps unreasonable expectations than toward a lack of productivity in Faculty Learning Community on the whole. Indeed, if I am honest and objective, I note that most of the members of the faculty learning community have been expressing real excitement about the ideas and strategies that we evoke and critique. FLC members are very intellectually and emotionally invested in rethinking their teaching, their classroom practices, and the manner of presentation and/or organization of their courses. In truth, the Faculty Learning Community has had a real impact.

The real ambivalence has to do with my desire to control the entire experience. No, wait, it’s not even desire. It’s my belief that somehow I would prove to be negligent and irresponsible if I failed to control every moment of the experience or if I lacked mastery in directing the conversations. This notion is, I have come to realize, an unnecessary and counterproductive way to view this experiment. I need to let my overzealous illusion of control fall to the wayside. My true responsibility is to influence the gist of conversations ahead of time by providing good prompts and by framing certain ideas or expectations for the conversation. However, the actual exchanges and crosstalk during our meetings are not my primary responsibility and are not really under my control. I can reasonably expect my colleagues to invest in our shared intellectual work only as much as they want to and need to. To state the lesson for myself, in a nutshell, I need to prep conscientiously, then to chill and let the experience unfold, trusting participants to engage with each other and with the ideas and frameworks. Amen.

Reflections on the “fit” between digital resources, cognitive science and my instructional design thinking in LTT 150

[ 2263 words; revised 18 April 2018 ]

Here, as promised a while ago, are some further comments on MCC 150 Learning Across Cultures. The revised syllabus for the course may be found here. In this blog post, I will comment on the course as a whole, including the historical background that motivated my decision to propose, design and teach the course. I will also comment on my impressions about the relative effectiveness of certain elements of the course (combining certain digital media tools with cognitive-science-informed learning goals or design principles).

Background, Purpose, Overarching Goals

The original impetus for this course was a meeting many years ago between staff from my university’s admissions office, representatives of the offices that support academic advising in the College of Arts and Sciences and the business school at my university, representatives of Academic Affairs, and representatives from my department, Modern and Classical Languages (which, in addition to teaching several modern languages, Latin and Ancient Greek, also houses a few ESL courses and a robust Linguistics program). I was in the meeting primarily in the role of Chair of my department at the time. The major issues under discussion were a range difficulties faced by some international students and their advisors. The students in question were performing problematically in multiple courses or has language skills in English that were perceived as being insufficient, even though those students had met admissions standards for language ability. They could do this either by demonstrating proficiency through an appropriate TOEFL score or through enrollment and achievement in appropriate ESL courses prior to their first semester at Saint Joseph’s University. One of the ideas floated during that meeting was for faculty members in my department to develop a First-Year Seminar course that would orient such students to academic culture and studies at our university, while offering them general academic support and guidance on reading, writing, speaking, listening and note-taking in English.

Fast-forward a few years. No other faculty members in my department had expressed an interest in creating such a course. No one gave any sign of intending to plan or design a new First-Year Seminar in the form of a skills- and content-focused course that would to serve students from outside the U.S. or would offer particular support for those who enter my university as non-native speakers of English. As Chair, I had little time to produce or implement such a course myself. However, I continued to reflect on the issues. Toward the end of my service as chair, believing that my department had the necessary expertise and a moral obligation to help those students, I decided to design and propose a course whose principal intellectual content would be intercultural communication and whose general manner would help all students develop fundamental skills for success in the academic programs at our university. Obviously, a major goal in developing and teaching this course was to help students from overseas, especially those who might predictably have problems adapting to life as a student in the United States. However, that goal alone did not seem sufficient for designing a free-standing course. It would amount to guessing about certain students’ likely prospects for academic success and seek to bolster skills in areas of imagined weaknesses or lacunae. In a sense, such a course would seem to single out those who had received a secondary education outside of mainstream United States schools and/or doing most of their learning in a language other than American English. I wondered if there would not be a way to draw on the richness of such students diverse experience, while also exposing them to a variety of perspectives of students born, raised and educated inside the U.S. To me, it seemed important to articulate other, more robust, goals for the course, like helping students, whatever their national origin or cultural-linguistic background, learn about how to learn more effectively. It seemed appropriate to develop a course to help all students develop good learning habits, devise and implement good strategies for academic performance across a variety of disciplines, increase their resilience so that they could face academic challenges more effectively, reflect critically on cultural dimensions of educational institutions and practices, particularly those that might become obstacles or impediments to some students, devise solutions for minimizing or removing such “educational-cultural” obstacles, and better understanding how their own brains work in the learning process.

My comments below will center on a few of the digital resources that I used to help me guide students toward certain learning outcomes.

TED Talks, Other YouTube Videos, Google Books (initial weeks)

I chose to begin the course by teaching students about neuroplasticity and about how the brain functions during learning. For these purposes, YouTube and Google Books were helpful, readily available and free of charge. In class, we focused on the importance of working memory, attention, connecting new learning to prior knowledge, and using rehearsal practice to strengthen the recall of new information and new insights for effective long-term learning. We also explored and discussed themes like distributed practice and the role of sufficient sleep and good nutrition for effective brain function. In short, I wanted students to learn about brain function and cognition, so that they would be able to structure their learning habits in alignment with how human brains actually work. I covered this material over the first three weeks of the course.

The digital resources that I used in this portion of the course was as follows:

How did the digital resources work? Quite well, generally speaking. Most students reacted extremely favorably to my assigning some videos instead of sticking exclusively with more traditional readings. Discussions were quite lively and productive. What is more, when I later asked students to comment on working memory and neuroplasticity, most of them were able to evoke accurate and detailed explanations of those phenomena.

Other Strategies and Digital Tools Used During the Rest of the Course

For the latter eleven weeks of the course, I asked students to do extensive readings in three print books:

  • Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Maalouf, A. (2012). In the name of identity: Violence and the need to belong. Bray, B., trans. New York: Arcade Publishing.
  • Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. 3rd. ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Please note, however, that I did not ask them simply to read. I asked them to work collaboratively in assigned groups of four or five to articulate their collective understandings of each reading assignment and to share their impressions and understandings of the content of the course and its connections with both the wider world and their own educational experiences. (I had asked students to complete a survey about their educational, linguistic and socio-economic background. I interviewed each of them individually outside of class. This allowed me to create working groups that were quite diverse.)

To accomplish this work, I asked them to use two digital tools. First, for group work, I asked them to use GSuite tools to create Google Docs for each reading assignment. I expected them to use Google to generate collective reading notes and shared comments and observations, to be circulated among all members of each group (four groups of four to five students) but also to be shared with me. In this way, I was able to follow the collective readings and understandings of the four groups in the course and to prepare my own responses to their comments. When we met for class discussions, I asked each group to discuss their collective conclusions briefly face-to-face, then I asked all groups to specify a few major ideas that they found important. After recording these comments on the board, we engaged in a whole-class discussion of the readings, debating or refining the ideas recorded on the board. During the full-class discussion activity, we drew conclusions about the most important ideas in each reading — and we drew implications. If (on rare occasions) there were significant lacunae after group discussions, I used question-asking to help the students fill them. On rare occasions, I simply filled the lacunae. Generally speaking, though, the 18 students in the course generated a very good understanding of each of the readings with relatively few interventions on my part. Indeed, I had relatively little work to do as the “mentor” and “guide” in this course. This result was in line with my goal of having students actively engage with each text — and having them help each other understand both the gist and the significant details of each reading.

The other major tool that I used during the remain of the semester was Yellowdig, a social-media-inflected discussion tool. My intent in using Yellowdig was to foster a spirit of collective engagement, social learning and excitement about the themes and the specific ideas we were exploring, as well as to ask students to connect course material to their own experience of the world. Students where required to produce a certain number of words of commentary weekly and to respond to each other’s observations. In most cases, student engagement greatly surpassed my expectations. Again, the software chosen for this function proved to be an effective digital tool. Students using Yellowdig pulled together with enthusiasm, responding to each other and affirming the dignity and value of other participants in the course. On occasion, they offered advice to each other and they formulated mutually comprehensible understandings of the gist of the course, extending in-class discussions and adding meaningful examples. On the whole, the digital collaboration and discussion tools worked as intended, building a kind of widely shared spirit of cooperation, support, empathy and mutual respect.

What were my instructional strategies in using these tools and how did cognitive science inform them? First, my intention in asking the students to generate collaborative notes on the readings was to set up a continual pattern of cognitive effort and retrieval practice. In essence, I required them to process each reading twice before coming to class. (First, when they read for an initial understanding; then, again, while thinking through bits and pieces of the reading to formulate notes, comments or ideas to post to the Google Doc.) Students processed the main ideas of readings a third time when arrived in class, by talking through the readings again face-to-face, while consulting the group document, they engaged in an active and interpersonal way with the readings. Then, finally, by having groups share out their observations and perspectives on the readings, then discussing or debating them with the class as a whole, I engaged most students in yet another round of processing and retrieval practice. I might add that peer pressure — the obligation to carry a fair share of the load of producing a group document and a shared understanding — motivated most students to participate quite actively. I added a layer of complexity by periodically asking them to link current readings to earlier ones. In short, by the time we had worked through the entire cycle of reading, note-taking and discussion for any particular assignment, most students understood the texts extremely well and noted many important implications beyond a surface reading. Indeed, most student made significant and resonant connections to other texts, ideas or frameworks.

The instructional strategies behind my use of Yellowdig were different. In that case, the digital tool was intended to build a sense of community in the class as a whole and to allow students to link the ideas discussed in the classroom to their own experiences as struggling or inspired students — or as cultural outsiders. It worked spectacularly well. Most students in the course were very enthusiastic and responded quite positively and in a welcoming and affirming way to most other students’ posts. They also made many connections to current events, to their own lives and to cultural perspectives, both their own and others’, which they analyzed and critiqued in interesting ways. To be honest, reading their Yellowdig posts was almost always an immense pleasure for me. Students found this tool to be interesting, helpful and fun. And so did I.

My general conclusions?

I believe that my general design principles and the tools and resources that I chose were appropriate and had a significant impact on student engagement and learning. Still, as I prepare for the second iteration of the course, I may need to do some additional research into digital tools that may be effective for illustrating or embodying cognitive-science-informed learning principles or effective means for developing intercultural awareness and effective intercultural communication strategies.

I’m open to comments and critiques. I’d love to hear from fellow teachers and learners.

-RRD

Reflections on a New Course: “Learning Across Cultures”

[632Words]

18 December 2017

As I sit at the end of a semester-long experience teaching a course that I had begun designing about four years ago, I am feeling simultaneously gratified, grateful, regretful, elated, pensive, self-doubting, and deeply fatigued.

What I am most grateful for is the way in which the course seems to have been highly meaningful and inspiring for many students. It was successful, on the face of it, and students have clearly articulated ways in which it has had an impact on their thinking, on their practices, on their fundamental patterns of cognition and engagement at my university. The course matters and it went quite well in many ways. So I’m feeling gratified.

My regret arises from my own failings and the missed opportunities that I see clearly. Had I been better organized, more disciplined and had I done my work more promptly, the experience would have been even better for the students and for me.

I’m elated that it is over, because the course has demanded a lot of energy and thought, and it’s a relief to think that in the very near future I can let it go, at least for a time. I’m elated that I’m going into my Christmas break with real teaching and learning success in the course. I’m elated that I have had a positive impact on a number of students and that they think well of me, despite my flaws and shortcomings. I’m

I’m feeling pensive because I wonder about my own motivations and about the meaning of this course. Why did I create it? Why was I so enthusiastic about creating it? Am I simply trying to cast myself in the light of a ground-breaking maverick who is doing heroic and misunderstood work? Why was it so hard to get departmental approval for the course? Why were my colleagues so resistant to it? Is it truly worthwhile? Or am I deluding myself? Where my colleagues right and am I wrong about the value of the course?

Given the reactions of students in interviews and in spontaneous comments — much of which is carefully reasoned, argument-rich, highly articulate and insightful discourse — and given their enthusiasm for this class and the ways in which they make connections to other courses, other conceptual domains, and the wider world, it seems to me that the course that I designed and taught is meaningful to most of the students who took the course and had a positive impact on their experience as learners. In short, I do not believe that this whole enterprise is a waste of time. Still… I wonder. Am I really the right person to do this kind of interdisciplinary course creation? (I believe that the proper answer is “yes,” mostly because I find real intellectual satisfaction in making connections and/or finding correspondences and/or discerning meaningful interrelations among disparate fields of study. What is more,  I love learning; I am a very good model for lifelong learning; I love thinking and seeking to understand “the big picture”; I love research and reading. So… yeah.)

Finally, I’m fatigued because I hardly slept last night.  (I finished the third major iteration of an article for the NECTFL Review around 2:00 a.m. before crashing, then woke and rose again at 6:00.) I am fatigued because I’ve been going full blast intellectually and physically.

Now, enough with focusing on me and my feelings. Let’s take a look at the course itself. Here is a link to the MCC 150 Learning Across Cultures syllabus. I’ll offer comments on the course in a subsequent blog. I’d be interested in comments on the course as evoked in the syllabus. I think it has significance and significant promise. But I need to improve my execution as a facilitator of learning in this course. More later, I promise.